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Me, OnStar and Irene

by Roger Lanctot | Aug 28, 2011

As Hurricane Irene was making landfall in North Carolina, my son was preparing to leave our Northern Virginia home to drive back to Richmond, Va., where he is attending college It suddenly occurred to me that despite the 24/7 television coverage and Internet resources, I couldn’t give him any good advice as to whether it was a good idea from a weather or a traffic perspective to set out on such a journey with the storm closing in.

My son didn’t miss a beat.  He got on the Google Website and checked Google’s traffic data, showing me that the traffic flow was “green” all the way to Richmond.  All I could think was: Another opportunity for OnStar to stand out has come and gone.  Why is this?

In his book – “Detour: My Unexpected, Amazing, Life Changing Journey with OnStar” – former and original OnStar president Chet Huber talks about the service’s reaction during Katrina.  While Huber pats the organization on the back for enabling customers with expired OnStar subscriptions to freely access the service to better locate emergency services, evacuation routes and shelter, he also proudly touts the fact that OnStar did not take advantage of the crisis.

OnStar made no press statements or press releases during Katrina to let the country know that it had added to its existing subscribers’ personal minutes accounts and had also turned the service on for expired customers during the crisis.  In Huber’s words: “Again, our sense was that bad things like hurricanes shouldn’t necessarily equal more sales for us.” 

These are noble intentions, but OnStar seriously missed the boat during Katrina and is missing it again with Irene.  It may seem crass to treat a hurricane as a marketing opportunity, but it is foolish to miss the opportunity to save lives and aid emergency responders.

For 15 years OnStar has been silent during major crises.  Where Google has aided emergency responders in Haiti and during the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, OnStar has yet to feature prominently in any U.S. crisis, in spite of the fact that the service connects 5.5M users in the U.S. to emergency contact centers.

But it’s not just the emergency call center access that is at issue, OnStar has the ability to provide information to public authorities and the press regarding the flow of traffic on evacuation routes and the volume and nature of calls it is receiving from the entire affected area.  OnStar representatives could provide a public face for the emergency response community, taking some of the pressure off of public officials, while providing valuable insight regarding real-time events during a crisis like Irene.

During Katrina OnStar did not simply decline to publicize its helping hand.  The company actually refused to announce its activities.  Writes Huber:

“I actually received a phone call from the attorney general of one of the affected states while (Katrina) was going on.  He’d read an article about an OnStar subscriber who got help because our system was able to connect during the storm… he wanted us to issue a press release to make a big deal out of (our downloading free minutes).  I think he wanted a few public examples of that kind of behavior in order to stimulate more of it from other companies.

“I apologized and told him that we weren’t going to put out a press release because we didn’t want to look like a company that was doing these things just to get attention. He said that if we wouldn’t do it, we needed to get him the facts because he was going to issue his own press release to draw attention to us and a couple of other companies he thought would be examples of the right kind of behaviors.”

In the end, the question was moot.  Huber never finds out whether any press release was issued.  Many crises have come and gone since without so much as a peep from OnStar.

The disinterest in publicity seems disingenuous to me given the active social networking efforts of both GM and OnStar.  OnStar has not been shy about promoting its For My Vehicle aftermarket mirror.  Why should it be shy when there is a legitimate opportunity to help both customers and non-customer?

This is an easy situation to fix.  OnStar executives need to recognize the resource that the system represents and share it.  The industry and the country needs OnStar, and hurricane reaction assistance is only the beginning. 

Some of the best research on safety systems and driver distraction has actually been done by OnStar executives using the boatloads of data produced over the years by this unique connected system.  Important decisions regarding back-up camera mandates, vehicle connectivity and crash avoidance technologies and distracted driving laws all represent opportunities for OnStar to influence strategic thinking and policy as the industry leader.

 

One of the best studies – “Real-World Personal Conversations Using a Hands-Free Embedded Wireless Device While Driving: Effect on Airbag-Deployment Crash Rates” – was co-authored by my Strategy Analytics colleague, Chris Schreiner, during his time at OnStar.  The study shows fewer accidents occurring while people are using their personal minutes.  Why haven’t we heard more about this study?  What else is in the archives?

 

Implications:

 

There are two issues at stake here.  The first issue is one of appearances.  The good people at OnStar do not want to appear to be publicity hogs or opportunists.  If they are providing legitimate assistance based on the existence of the service, then they will not be perceived in this manner.

 

Of course, if they want to provide assistance without taking too much credit, they could issue reports to and through public authorities.  People living in areas impacted by the storm clearly are looking for information about how bad the situation is from location to location and in relation to past storms.  OnStar is capable of providing valuable, cross-regional insights and analytics regarding the number of incoming calls and the nature of those calls. 

 

There is a bigger issue at stake, though, and that is OnStar’s potential role in rule making and regulatory matters.  No car maker in the world has nearly as much data regarding real world vehicle operation parameters.  Outgoing president Chris Preuss indicated shortly before his departure that OnStar executives intended to make its database a resource for that very purpose.

 

Let’s hope OnStar has opened or is opening up the data archives for students of vehicle safety around the world.  All drivers stand to benefit a little bit and GM stands to benefit the most.   And the next time Mother Nature dials up a hurricane let’s hope OnStar picks up the phone.

 

Additional insight:

 

http://bit.ly/n4f4Eg - State Farm, Hughes Giving OnStar a Wake-Up Call - Lanctot - blog - Strategy Analytics

http://bit.ly/qbSM0B - State Farm, Hughes Raise Usage-Based Insurance Bar - Insight - Lanctot - Automotive Multimedia & Communications

http://bit.ly/nS7zom - OnStar Family Link Could Break Location Taboo - Insight - Lanctot - Automotive Multimedia & Communications

http://bit.ly/qSA29m - OnStar: Time to Hit the Reset Button? - Insight - Lanctot - Automotive Multimedia & Communications

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